March 10, 2012


Eternal music from a literary quartet: George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell are rarely discussed together, and yet are best understood as a cohort (Simon Kuper, 3/09/12, Financial Times)

What the four men shared was first of all their prose: lucid and rhythmic at once. They were lucky to emerge as novelists around 1930, when frilly overwriting - "Edwardian debris", Powell called it - and Joycean obscurity were both going out of fashion. "Good prose is like a window-pane," wrote Orwell, but even he was never simply stark. His dictum itself has a wonderful metre, and he praised Henry Miller for his "flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it".

Waugh, who could write perfect sentences, thought Powell and Greene also had "intensely personal and beautiful styles". He suggested it was because they had all studied Latin from age nine. "They acquired a basic sense of the structure of language which never left them," Waugh wrote, "they learned to scan quite elaborate metres; they learned to compose Latin verses of a kind themselves."

Their second commonality: all four believed in the novel. Unlike Joyce, they saw no need to deconstruct it. They were fundamentally unexperimental, more interested in describing the world than in worrying about whether it could be described.

That was partly because the world gave them endless material. Their predecessors who matured in peace before 1914 - P.G. Wodehouse, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling - mostly wrote light stories, often for children. But the second world war gave even Powell a taste of hardship. These four men witnessed their time, and were generally contemptuous of W.H. Auden for sitting out the war. 
"Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a, like a ... " blustered Powell, decades later.

The war also helped the quartet look beyond England. Love abroad or hate it (as Waugh did), it provided yet more material and allowed these men to see England from the outside, especially from the 1940s when the country of their youth disappeared. Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four are very different exercises in nostalgia for a lost England.

Above all, these four made you laugh. There's a basic rule of English communication that foreigners often miss: everything must be funny, especially when the topic is weighty.

The great advantage of such writers is that because they were of the Anglosphere they were premodern and conservative and, thus, funny. 

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Posted by at March 10, 2012 4:42 PM

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